In her adult fantasy debut, Chloe Gong returns to her Shakespeare reimaginings, this time the tale of Antony and Cleopatra. Immortal Longings, the first in a trilogy, is reminiscent of The Hunger Games and is set in the twin cities of San-Er, inspired by the now-demolished Kowloon Walled City of Hong Kong. The Kowloon Walled City, described as a “city of anarchy,” was known for its widespread disorder and poverty. This same atmosphere plays out in Immortal Longings, with the dark undertones of the setting underscoring the inequalities of its political system.
After instigating a palace massacre and killing her parents in the name of abolishing the monarchy, Princess Calla Tuoleimi has chosen to keep a low profile in the dense and overcrowded city. She’s joined the city-wide killing games, aided by her cousin Prince August, in hopes of winning and killing the king, who always greets the victor. There’s a twist; some residents of San-Er can “jump” across bodies, with the original soul only being able to return once the body jumper has left.
Also participating in the games is Anton Makusa, an exiled aristocrat with a talent for jumping bodies. Anton hopes to win the games and use the prize money for his comatose lover’s hospital bills. Calla and Anton partner up in the games while facing external political plots — the logistics of these plots aren’t entirely clear — that threaten the fate of the cities.
This is a thrilling premise, and readers won’t be disappointed at the amount of twists this journey takes. However, Gong often relies on heavy (and sometimes excessive) worldbuilding, and this is no exception in Immortal Longings. It seems that Gong had a lot of fun envisioning all the intricacies of the world, and it’s always evident when an author has such passion for her creation and puts that to the page.
Despite the awe-inspiring and imaginative sequences, reading such in-depth worldbuilding may not be as fun for the reader. There’s a lot of well-conceptualized ideas that are overshadowed by the confusing connections between them. Some readers may be thrown for a loop after an action-laden scene is suddenly interrupted by sentences elaborating background mechanical workings that in turn explain the history behind something tangentially related to what’s occurring in that moment.
Aside from the slightly older main characters — Calla and Anton are both in their twenties — there isn’t much that distinguishes this adult fantasy from Gong’s young adult fantasy. Maybe the difference is that physical intimacy is explicitly acknowledged rather than hinted at in this adult fantasy. The body-swapping makes everything odder, given that each body Anton uses for intimate acts is never his; Gong mentions that this lack of consent from the hosts is a fact of their universe. Anton’s real body was confiscated after he was exiled, but that also means that Anton is never with Calla in his real body in this book. This takes away from the romance, since the relationship never feels true. How can it, when Calla doesn’t even know what the grown Anton looks like?
Anton is set up to be an appealing romantic love interest, but the lack of an actual body means that some readers might not really get the sense of who Anton is. There are some hints at wittiness and charisma, but other than that, Anton doesn’t have much identity or backstory except for the fact that he’s trying to save his lover in a coma. Gong could have furthered Anton’s relationship with the comatose Otta, especially since one of Calla’s questions is if Anton loves Otta over Calla. Instead, Otta feels more like a convenient plot device rather than an actual person who Anton loves. This will likely be a point of focus for the next two books in the trilogy, but one gets the sense that Gong could have conveyed that in this first book without drawing it out.
Gong is able to channel a lot of angst and complex emotions, that’s for sure. Still, a lot of Immortal Longings feels like visuals take precedence over character development. One understands some moments are meant to be angst-ridden and climactic, but Immortal Longings gets the emotion across without the why to them.
Gong consistently writes powerful fighter female characters, which give some great action to the plot. Aside from their external strength, though, these characters demand more vulnerability. It seems like being strong means being attractive, but the story leaves out the characters who don’t have such privileges. Immortal Longings is engaging primarily for its setting. For a better taste of Gong’s writing strengths, readers may want to stick with the Secret Shanghai series.